Duty and service: Hillcrest’s first professional athlete saved lives in Vietnam, became Jordan’s legacy coachFeb 09, 2024 12:57PM ● By Julie Slama
Former Hillcrest High basketball star Hal Hale still can swish a ball on his Midvale childhood home court. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
It wasn’t the scripted storybook ending for a local Midvale boy who grew up shooting hoops in his driveway with his two older brothers and went on to become Hillcrest High’s first professional athlete.
But it turned out “all right” for the state basketball champion both as a player and as a coach who later received awards for saving lives in Vietnam.
Hal Hale, who still lives in his childhood home, grew up the fourth of five children on a farm with cows, horses, pigs and chickens. With friends, he and his two older brothers played basketball, shooting on a backboard and rim mounted to the side of the garage.
“My brother Gary—he’s nine years older and was an All-American basketball player at the University of Utah—he went back east to a tournament and played on a regulation basketball standard where you could go underneath it,” Hale said. “He got the instructions, and we ended up building that when I was about 12, so we didn’t bang into the garage anymore. We had the only real standard around, so a lot of people came to play, and we became really good ballplayers through some competitive games.”
His first organized team experience was for Midvale Junior High, and they’d play other schools in the area — Murray, Union, Mount Jordan and Bingham junior highs.
“I could handle the ball, so I played point most of my life,” Hale said.
Hale played under Art Hughes at Jordan High his first two years of high school.
“My brother Cleve was Jordan’s student body president when I was a junior there. We had a good team,” he said about his teammates, Cleve and another who were All State and several others who played at college. “There were 16 teams in the tournament and West was favored to win. We met them in the finals and beat them fairly easily. Our only loss that season was to Highland in the preseason. We met Highland in the semifinals and blew them out. We had a big celebration afterward, and they awarded the trophy to our coaches.”
Then, came the big blow that Jordan High’s student body would be divided with the new Midvale school, his team split in half. Hughes also went to Hillcrest; the Huskies floor is named after him.
The point guard became Hillcrest’s first student body president in 1962–63, running a campaign “Be a Pal, vote for Hal.” Mickey Dowd ran against him.
“He was not only being the basketball star but a genuinely nice guy who beat me to be student body president,” said Dowd, who ended up being the vice president.
Hale remembers there were four juniors on the state championship team; two stayed at Jordan and two went to Hillcrest, but the other player ended up not playing for the Huskies.
“In the playoffs, we ended up losing to Bountiful by one point,” Hale said. “Jordan ended up beating Bountiful for the state championship. We were all coached by Art; he was a great coach. He could get the most out of his players; he was a real good motivator.”
During the playoffs, Utah State University’s head basketball coach LaDell Anderson attended nearly every game and “showed the most interest in me. He was the assistant coach at the U of U when my older brother was there, and Gary really liked him,” Hale said. “I had a scholarship to go to any of the Utah schools and Jack Gardner (U of U’s coach) thought I’d go there, but LaDell was the main reason I went to USU.”
After that one Hillcrest season, Hale never played on his homecourt again — although he did see it before the old gymnasium was torn down in April 2020 as part of the school’s rebuild.
As a USU senior, his team was ranked “fourth or fifth in the nation; we were a good team.” Hale was named the most valuable player.
After the season, he received a letter in the mail: the American Basketball Association drafted him to play for the Houston Mavericks.
“I didn’t know I was going to be drafted,” Hale said. “There wasn’t any huge draft party back them, just a letter. If I didn’t go to Houston, then I might have stayed on as fifth-year athlete, so I could have played baseball all four years, and the football coach wanted me to play defensive safety. But I decided to go to Houston and get my teaching certificate, so I did that and graduated in physical education and recreation.”
It was never Hale’s dream to play professionally, but he embraced it.
“Playing pro was exciting,” he said. “When I played, it was because I had a passion for the game. There wasn’t any fame or fortune. We had a two-hour practice in the morning and six hours later, we’d go two hours again. To me, it was invigorating and fun. I thought it is fantastic to do something I really loved to do, to stay in great shape and to get paid for it.”
Hale’s salary that year was $10,000 with a signing bonus of $2,000.
“When we made the playoffs, we got another $500, and they had already talked to me about the next year about giving me this big pay increase,” he said. “I was thinking I would play a lot better because that season, I had an injury, a hip pointer.”
Even with his injury, he was the sixth-best three-point shooter in the league.
Hale didn’t return to the ABA.
He was drafted to serve in Vietnam. His pay was cut to $90 per month, with an additional $50 for combat pay. His two older brothers also were serving.
“I felt strong about our country and the constitution, but I didn’t want to be part of this,” Hale said. “I had a doctor friend who didn’t believe in the Vietnam War, and he said he would cut my knee so I wouldn’t have had to go. I could have stayed and played pro basketball, but I couldn’t live with myself knowing I’d do that. A lot of people were going to Canada they were trying to get out of this, and I couldn’t do that. LaDell said he could get me to play basketball for the U.S. Special Forces in Europe as my duty, but when he called, they couldn’t accept me because I played pro, and that was against the rules.”
Hale was in Vietnam 13 months and 18 days.
He served as a medic, having taken lot of anatomy and physiology at USU, and received training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
His first three weeks in the 101st Airborne were quiet.
Then came a battle in the A Sau Valley.
“We were in the jungle, and we were getting hit every day,” Hale, who was awarded a Bronze star, said. “They were getting rockets coming in. You could hear a high-pitched sound, and they come in from about 5, 6 miles away, and it was a ping sound. You could actually hear ‘ping, ping, ping,’ and you knew you had to find some cover before these big rockets would come in and blast away. Most of the time, it happened in the daytime when we were moving around and didn’t have any protection. We had 84 of us in our battery, and I had to treat a little over half of them. Four people were killed. Other times, we were being hit by the enemy, but that was the worst one as far as loss of life and most casualties that I had to treated at one time.”
The attacks also were at night.
“Some of those rockets went through the bunkers,” he said. “We had a guy hit in the throat, and it was really bad. I was trying to set up an IV, and some guy came crawling for help. I saw he was shot in the leg, but I told him to stick his hand in the other guy’s throat to block the stop the bleeding. Growing up, I had seen cows’ blood spurt out, but never this. It was a hose coming out, so I knew I had to stop that immediately. I was able to set up the IV and then a helicopter took him, and I was able to treat the other guy with the leg injury that wasn’t as severe.”
Hale studied the medical manual the military provided him.
“Every opportunity, I had my nose in the book, making sure that I knew what to do to be ready for different situations that could possibly happen,” he said. “I also studied what to do if you got malaria, dengue fever and all sorts of types of fungus infections. Sometimes, I just had to be creative ,doing my best under fire, in the rain, without the supplies that were needed and having just 10 weeks of training. They call me Doc; they trusted me.”
At times, Hale had a comrade watching out for him as he provided care, but “there were times we were taking fire and I had to stop treating people to help save myself and fire my M16 back.”
At times, Hale went outside the perimeter to treat his fellow soldiers.
One of those times, about six months into his Vietnam stint, he returned from treating others and went to see his captain.
“He saw blood coming down on my arm,” Hale said. “I didn’t even realize it at the time. I had been hit by shrapnel. The side of my face and my ear, I had had some little pecks where it had hit.”
Hale treated himself. His Purple Heart and Bronze Star with “V” device and other honors that was bestowed upon him aren’t on display.
“When you’re treating people that lost their arm or whatever, this didn’t seem to be significant,” he said.
Right before he was to head home, Hale was treating comrades who had fought on Hamburger Hill.
“Supposedly everything had been taken care of, but as we were getting ready to go up there, fire started coming from Hamburger Hill,” he said. “So, our mission was canceled. The next day the helicopter picked me up, and I was the ‘freedom bird,’ heading home. I had mixed emotions, because I was taking care of people and I got so close to them. I was happy I was leaving, but I felt I needed to be there to help them. Mostly, it was such a relief because every time I heard somebody scream out ‘medic,’ or ‘doc,’ it was a burst of adrenaline. It was such a relief to sit on that plane, not hearing that scream because every time I’d hear that, I knew it was something real serious. Sometimes, I heard that person made it after treating him and then other times, I never heard it he made it or not. The ones that had passed on, we knew, and they had body bags. What helped me it was probably going through college and playing some basketball and having the knowledge I have in the gospel helped me stay centered.”
He planned to return to basketball, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I had little blisters down in the bronchial tubes, and when I tried to exert myself, it just burned,” he said. “I also had broken my wrist four times and had the injuries from the shrapnel. So, I used the GI Bill and got my master’s degree in health science at Utah State.”
He ended up teaching at Jordan High and served as the head basketball coach for 29 years and won the state title in 1984. He was also the head baseball coach at Jordan for two years, the head boys tennis coach for 25 years and the head girls tennis coach for 31 years. He was named as Utah’s boys basketball coach of the year and the National Federation of High School coaches’ boys tennis coach of the year.
“I’d shoot around with some of my Jordan players,” he said. “When I was 40, I could still dunk.”
While teaching, the nephew of the Hale Centre Theatre founder took care of his mother, who lived to be 100. She was there to see him be recognized on the Wall of Honor at Jordan High and at their centennial celebration. He is featured in “Pictures Past: A Centennial Celebration of Utah State University” and in the Gallery of Honor at the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.
“I have a lot of trophies and medals somewhere in the basement,” he said. “But it’s the friends and teammates I’ve made in school and sports and in church and the service that have carried me.”
And he still grins when he swishes the ball on his childhood driveway. λ